The Girl on The Train‘s central character Rachel (Emily Blunt) confesses to one of the story’s several red herrings “I’m afraid of myself.” Unfortunately for the character (compellingly frustrating on the the page) and actress (appropriately frayed, but flopped around like a rag doll for the sake of making her Pathetic and Lost), the film is afraid of itself.
What could be a thrilling dive into Lifetime movie territory with a glossier budget is instead the softest of lobs, too tepid to get kinky and too undercooked to command audience attention. Even its fleeting flirtation with 90s sex thriller elements and brutal violence are watered down with disinterest, as if it doesn’t know that that salaciousness is why we’ve showed up to Train in the first place. By denying its trashier impulses (and influences), the film suffers a bit of an identity crisis.
But the film doesn’t take a more refined approach either, as it doesn’t build mystery or suspense beyond moving lethargically between plot points. The disinterest the film has in its more prurient content is equally as present in character defining moments, with flat monologuing replacing any semblance of nuance. There is plenty of faith to the novel but none of the verve that made it the (albeit ludicrous) page-turner that it is. Gone is Rachel’s creep factor of daily watching the eventual victim (Haley Bennett) or the tense mystery of deceiving said victim’s husband (Luke Evans). There’s a mystery playing out that the film hardly engages with – Train is merely going through the motions with no eagerness to excite or satisfy.
The narrative’s triptych, time-hopping structure makes The Help‘s Tate Taylor a somewhat rational choice for directing another popular novel with three women at the forefront (our time is shared between Blunt, Bennett, and Rebecca Ferguson as Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife). But whereas The Help adored the women at its center and thrived on the raw emotion they inspired, Train has more than a few problems with women. Tate’s version (from Erin Cressida Wilson’s adaptation) fails to improve on the novel’s muddled gender politics of enforced stereotypes of motherhood and whoredom and its complacency in accepting antiquated gender roles for the sake of unsatisfying twists.
Taylor’s surface level intrigue is less surprising, but one would have welcomed even a bit of the incoherent exuberance he brought to Get On Up. Even with an almost comically bursting cast (somehow including Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow, and Laura Prepon), Taylor doesn’t spark to any of their talents or natural charisma. Most actors end up poorly directed and ghastly, from the coffin-severe Evans to a flatline Justin Theroux. If you need a solid indicator of the film’s lack of bloodflow, just look at how sexless it makes walking-hormone-injection Edgar Ramirez out to be.
However, the film’s cruelest mishap is how is captures Blunt’s performance. The actress is an astute choice for the role, so complex on the page and ready for her always lived-in commitment. She’s as game as ever, working overtime against the film to present more than the base level characterization it wants from her. It could have been so much more if she’d been given the chance.
With plentiful twists underplayed to the extreme and a cast it fails to list up to, The Girl on The Train is a film that has no idea what its strongest assets are.